Palm Oil (PO) cultivation requires extensive areas of land. Its production has been linked to deforestation, climate change and socioeconomic instability. PO plantations support fewer tree and animal species, resulting in substantial loss of biodiversity. In turn, the extensive use of PO has been linked to habitat fragmentation, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. It can be predicted that such extensive biodiversity losses will only be avoided if future PO expansion does not involve deforestation.
So, given the devastating environmental effects linked to PO production, is it ethical to buy foods containing PO?
What is palm oil?
PO comes from the palm tree known as Elaeis Guineensis which is native to many West African countries. From the palm fruit itself, two different types of oils can be extracted: palm kernel oil from the seeds and PO from the mesocarp (middle fleshy layer) itself.
- PO is used to formulate liquid detergents, lipsticks, waxes and polishes
- In the food market PO is an ingredient in cooking oils, margarines, ice-cream, ready-to-eat meals and confectionary.
How does palm oil weigh up in terms of health?
PO contains around 50% saturated fatty acids, mainly in the form of palmitic acid. These in turn raise LDL cholesterol, increasing the risk of obesity and cardiovascular disease.
- A meta-analysis of 30 articles has shown that PO compared with vegetable oil significantly raised LDL cholesterol.
- Animal studies have found PO ingestion to be associated with impaired platelet aggregability and venous thrombosis, indicating an increased risk of thromboembolic diseases.
- From a health perspective, substituting PO with vegetable oils may have benefits for LDL cholesterol.
What about infant and toddler foods?
The infant and toddler food market is steadily expanding. However, how closely do we look at the ingredients list? For sugar perhaps and the addition of additives. Yet should we be checking for PO, in particular PO from an unsustainable source?
- Data from 100 products were included in the main analysis.
- Results showed that PO was present in one in five (21%) of products reviewed.
- When analysing biscuit-based products, PO was found in three out of five (60%) of these.
- It was also evident in just under one-third (31%) of snack bars.
- Other products tended to use sunflower oil, or vegetable oils such as rapeseed or canola. A minority used orange oil for flavour.
- No products had labels for certified sustainable PO use.
Overall, these results show that PO is being used widely in specialist foods targeted at infants and young children.